This article is the second in our Beginner Series. It's all about the Bench Press, which, aptly, is the second lift you'll do on competition day.
As usual, it is written by our prolific writer James Kennedy.
(You can find the first part here).
Whenever people talk about the gym or find out that you go to the gym, it won’t be long before the eternal question gets asked: how much do you bench? Everyone wants an impressive answer to this question - but it also has value beyond just flexing.
For powerlifters, the bench press is the second lift within a powerlifting competition. It is the primary exercise for building the chest and developing general pressing strength.
Overview and Rules
The bench press is the most technical of the three power lifts. Within a powerlifting competition, there are three commands: ‘start’, ‘press’, and ‘rack’. After you have un-racked the bar, you hold the bar at lockout until the center referee says ‘start’. The lifter then lowers the bar to the chest, and, once it is still, the referee will give the ‘press’ command. At this point, the lifter drives the bar off their chest, using their pectorals, deltoids, triceps, and leg drive to press the bar to lockout. Once the bar is locked out, the center ref will then give the rack command. For all the powerlifters reading this, train with these commands wherever possible! Even if training alone, just pause at each point (after unpacking, at the bottom, and at the end of the rep) to build familiarity with the rhythm and tempo of the lift. Failure to follow commands is incredibly common, especially amongst inexperienced powerlifters, and is an incredibly frustrating way to fail a lift.
There are, of course, multiple ways to fail the bench press beyond failure to follow commands. The first, and obvious one, is being unable to complete the lift. The second is for your butt to come off the bench. This happens when people drive their legs through the floor to help with the lift (as they should) but overdo it, causing the butt to leave the bench.
Another way to fail a lift is by ‘heaving’. This is where, after receiving the press command, the lifter sinks the bar into their chest before pressing. Once you have received the press command, the bar can only move upwards. The final way to fail a bench press varies between powerlifting federation. Within the IPF, the lifter has to keep the whole foot on the floor during the bench press. In the ABPU or BPU, the lifter can do the bench press with just their toes on the floor. The pros and cons of these two techniques will be discussed later on in the article. Whenever you are competing at a competition, make sure you know the rules and are training with a technique that is allowed within the federation in which you’re competing.
The first thing to do with the Bench Press is to set up the equipment:
Setting up for the lift
Scapular (Shoulder blades) position
Similar to the squat, the shoulder blades should be pulled together during the bench press. This does two things. Firstly, it reduces range of motion by pushing the chest up. Secondly, and more importantly, it puts your shoulders in a safer position and reduces your risk of rotator cuff injuries and shoulder pain.
Foot position is key for the bench press. A key aspect of the bench press, like all lifts, is to maintain stability and create tension throughout the body, and that begins with the feet. For powerlifters, there are also rules about foot position. Within the IPF, the entire foot has to be on the floor. Within other federations, you are allowed to only have your toes on the floor.
IPF safe technique
This method is allowed within IPF competition and ABPU/BPU competition and involves your entire foot being in contact with the floor. As you lie on the bench, with the bar positioned between your forehead and mouth, pull your feet back a little bit, and as far out as your hips will allow. Keep pulling your feet towards your head until they are no longer on the ground; move them slightly forward from this point to maintain full foot contact with the ground.
Whilst this foot position is mandatory for IPF lifters, it is a good setup for all benchers. This foot position allows for a good arch, but also allows for excellent leg drive - as it is easier to generate leg drive when your feet aren’t excessively behind your body.
As you do not need to keep your whole foot on the floor in the ABPU, you can pull your feet back even further, until just the ball of the foot is on the ground. This technique allows you to create a larger arch, minimizing the range of motion and allowing you to lift more weight in theory. However, it is more difficult to generate leg drive with this technique, as you’re pushing through your toes, as opposed to having the whole foot push through.
Creating an arch
As a general rule, no matter your goal, everyone should arch when benching. Creating a proper arch makes the lift safer for the shoulders - as it raises the bottom position of the lift, where the shoulders are most vulnerable.
To set an arch, first lie on the bench, with the bar somewhere between your forehead and mouth. Set your shoulders by squeezing the shoulder blades together. Brace your hands against the uprights to keep your shoulders in place, and push your hips towards your shoulders, while driving your chest up. This creates an arch and keeps your shoulders in a sage and stable position.
Now you have set your shoulders, feet, and arch, it’s time to grip the bar.
In general, the wider you grip the bar, the heavier you will be able to lift. This increases your pressing strength for several reasons; it reduces the range of motion, it stops you from touching the bar too low on the chest which makes you stronger at the bottom of the bench press, and finally, the pectorals won’t be as stretched during the middle and lockout portion of the bench press which means they are capable of producing more force. The downside of this technique is that you may reduce the amount of chest hypertrophy you get (as your lifting through a more limited range of motion) and it can cause shoulder issues.
For powerlifters, the maximum grip width allowed is with the pointer fingers on the grip rings. As this will allow you to lift the most weight, the widest possible grip should be used by powerlifters when training the bench press. For non-powerlifters, who maybe have hypertrophy as a primary goal, there may be benefits from taking a slightly narrower grip, around 1.5 times shoulder width. This can be easier on the shoulders and could provide a better hypertrophy stimulus for the chest.
Once you have taken a grip, appropriate for your training goals, squeeze the bar as hard as you possibly can! This helps you maintain control over the bar and keeps your wrists in a better position as it stops you from bending the wrist back, which can cause wrist and elbow issues. Now, it’s time to unrack!
If you’ve been following along, your head should be positioned with bar over your mouth to forehead. Take a deep breath and brace your core.
Whilst maintaining the death grip on the bar - simply press the bar of the hooks and position it over your throat.
During lowering of the bar it is essential to maintain tension throughout the body, particularly in the upper back. Maintaining tension will allow you to lower the weight under control - elite lifters tend to take 2-3 seconds to lower the bench press. Whilst this seems counterintuitive, it is vital in the bench press to be in control at the bottom of the lift, as you have to stop the bar and it is very easy to lower the bar aggressively and then mess up the eccentric (pushing) part of the bench press. A common cue that people often give to maintain upper back tightness is to ‘rip the bar in half’ or ‘bend the bar’; either works, as attempting this forces the lifter to maintain tightness.
The bar should be lowered to touch the chest, somewhere between the nipples and base of the sternum depending on what feels better to your shoulders. This position on the chest should be the same on every rep, to ingrain the technique. A really nice trick to assess how well you are doing this is to coat the center knurling of the bar with chalk; if you have chalk all over your top at the end of a set, you haven’t been consistent with bar position.
For powerlifters, it is important to train the pause. On every rep, the bar should be lightly rested on the chest for 1 to two seconds, simulating the competition conditions. For non-powerlifters, it is ok to just touch the bar to the chest, whilst maintaining control.
The best way to pause the bench press is the ‘soft pause’. At the bottom of the lift, rest the bar very lightly on your chest, maintaining tension in your chest, triceps, shoulders, and upper back. Once you hear the press command, drive the bar back up. A handy cue at this point is, no matter the weight, try and only put 1kg on your chest when you pause at the bottom. By keeping as little weight as possible on your chest when you pause, you stop the bar from sinking in and decrease your risk of ‘heaving’ the bar following the press command.
Once the bar is steady on the chest and the press command has been given, aggressively drive the bar off your chest and keep driving until you reach lockout.
One of the key parts of benching huge weights is using your legs to drive the weight up. To do this, as you begin the ascent, try and push yourself back along the bench towards the rack. This can be hard to do without letting your butt come off the bench; film your training reps to make sure you’re not having your butt come off the bench as you initiate the leg drive.
You should start the press with leg drive and then push the back up and back towards your face. During the rep, you should have held your breath, only releasing it near lockout, to maintain that core and upper back stability.
A final consideration here is to press each rep as hard as you possibly can. This has been shown to double gains in the bench press, with no difference in training programs (link here (https://www.strongerbyscience.com/speed-kills-2x-the-intended-bar-speed-yields-2x-the-bench-press-gains/)).
Common weaknesses and sticking points
Aside from missing the bench press due to failure to obey commands, there are three points where people fail lifts; at the bottom, at the midpoint, and at lockout. Oftentimes, the solution is just to get stronger at the bench press. However, if you are consistently missing lifts at the same part of the lift, then there is often simple technical fixes that can help you push through plateaus.
At the bottom
Most of the time, you can get the bar moving off your chest at the bottom, until at least the midpoint. However, occasionally lifters will get pinned by the bar or only be able to the bar 1-2 inches off the chest. Technically, if you touch the bar too low to the chest, it is difficult to then press the bar back up, leaving the lifter pinned by the bar. If this is happening to you, try toughing the bar slightly higher up the chest. This will put your shoulders in a more stable position and enable you to push more efficiently.
At the midrange
This is where most lifters fail the bench press, and generally, it is due to either an improper bar path or just general pectoral and tricep weakness. If the bar is going vertically up off the chest, instead of up and back, you will fail in the middle zone of the lift as it becomes very difficult to continue to press the bar. Simply focusing on pressing the bar back towards your face will help correct this issue.
Missing lifts at lockout isn’t super common as it is usually the strongest part of the lift. If you find yourself consistently missing reps at lockout, it could be due to poor elbow position. As you approach lockout, your elbows should flare and end up pointing away from each other. If you struggle to lockout, consciously flaring the elbows towards the end of the bench press should allow you to power through the lockout sticking point.
The bench press is a complicated lift, with the most ways to fail the lift on a technicality. Hopefully, this guide will give you a guide to the technique needed to bench big weights and give a jaw-dropping answer to the question: how much do you bench?
If you're a Beginner yourself and want to get into powerlifting, check this out from Daniel Lee Fitness and Bold Body Squad -